Today was all about running Crystal Rapid, one of the major five (or six or seven depending on who you talk to) rapids on the two hundred and twenty mile stretch of river we had wholly committed ourselves to.

Time to pay the Piper.

Now mind you we ran three of the other five yesterday: Horn, Granite and Hermit

Photo by Ben Plehal

My older son running “The Horn” in Horn Creek Rapid     Photo by Ben Plehal 2003

My younger son in Granite Rapid 2003

My younger son cresting the “Hand of Allah” wave on Hermit 2003

But running Crystal rapid, rated the same 8 as the others on a difficulty scale of 1-10, commanded its own level of respect.  We spoke of it in quiet worried tones. We didn’t just scout this rapid, we planned where camp would be the night before based on hitting it at the most accommodating (we hoped) river flow as this changes throughout the day. Its imminence had us up at dawn’s first light taking a hurried breakfast to allow us more time for a very careful pack and rig. No one plans to flip a raft, but you always rig for it. In river running lore there is a saying, “There are those who have flipped, and those who have yet to flip.” With the cooler temps and cloudy skies we were all fervently praying to the river gods that our Time Had Not Yet Come.

Scouting is tense. First, there’s the getting there. It is said that more injuries occur scrambling over sharp rocks and precipitous terrain to get to the scout spot than in the rapids themselves. Then there’s the huddle. Gazing out over this roaring mess of heaving, crashing piles of confused whitewater we must find a way through the chaos from afar. All take turns gesticulating and saying nonsensical things like, “see that green tongue just to the right of that pile wave??”

Scouting Boat Captains

We’ve found over the years its best to speak of and look only at where we want to go. Looking at the 20 ft. deep gnarly hole in Crystal as you move down this rapid will take you right into it. Every time.

Ugh. By this time I’m glad I ate lightly as I feel the nausea rise.

Then, back to the boats quickly so there’s not much time to think. A quick pee is inevitable for all the nervous bladders. Snug the lifejackets a little tighter, cinch the helmets close, and a quick check on the rigging….

Casting off, here’s when all else falls away and pure concentrated presence arises. Knowing what the plan is, don’t think, just let instinct take over.

The entry is a deceptively smooth slide into…the MAW. 

Then truly all hell breaks loose. It’s a cacophony that assaults.  The deafening roar, the pitching and reeling of boat over wave, the frigid water slamming into face and body. No room for anything but purest presence. Even fear falls away. The plan no longer means much as the river has its overpowering way with you, tossing the boat this way and that, yanking oars from your hands at will; our job is to take each crashing wave, each unexpected hole, rock or spin with calm determined action aimed at staying upright.

Tristan looking into the gnarly hole at Chrystal...

Tristan looking into the gnarly hole at Crystal… photo by Ben Plehal 2003

..and plunging in

..and plunging in   Photo by Ben Plehal 2003

Running Crystal Rapid did not disappoint. I found myself staring down into that 20 ft. hole and realizing I’d have to high side the right pontoon of our cataraft to keep it from going up and flipping over. But know this wasn’t a thought, it was pure presence in the moment that sent my full body weight against the rising of that pontoon. It was Don’s river presence that gave the final hard push on the oars forward for the extra movement needed to punch through and spin off to the left, avoiding the gnarly flip. But that wasn’t the end of it! Crystal is a long and violent rapid and now we were sideways moving like a freight train into wave after slamming wave. If you’re a river runner you know the boat should point directly into the waves to avoid a flip. And then there was the wall at the bottom. We were heading straight for it.

This all sounds like we’re not very good at running rapids, let alone running Crystal Rapid. But the truth is nearly every one of our five boats had similar hair-raising runs. Our lead boatman had done this river forty four times! All the others were seasoned river runners as well.

The truth is, there are no guarantees. Not for planning, not for experience, not for courage. They certainly help of course, but the river has its own ideas regardless of your preparations. In the moment it’s all about forgetting the plan, looking where you want to go, and coming at whatever is thrown your way with calm determination to stay upright. And isn’t that just how Life is? What an analogy. The river is a great teacher. 

Which way would you go?

p.s. You might be scratching your head at this point wondering why anyone would do such things as running Crystal Rapid? Well there’s always the jubilant celebrations at rapid’s end – the hoots and hollers and incredible high of making it through.

And besides that…well, stay tuned as there’s more to come….

p.p.s. BTW, the river gods smiled and we DID all make it through :<)

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